Northern Valley provides blueprint for incoming 6-man football teams
GRAINFIELD, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - In 2019, Almena-Northern Valley’s football team went through many of the same struggles faced by other small schools. Northern Valley finished 2-7 with three competitive losses, the program’s fewest wins in 10 years. However, NV had 12 players on the roster. The Huskies encountered some injuries. In Week 7, the Huskies traveled to Osborne, the eventual Eight-Man, Division II state champions.
Northern Valley had eight healthy players, including two who had never played football until that year. Northern Valley lineman Kai Cox labeled the night “scary.”
“It’s like we hit rock bottom,” Cox said.
The Huskies were able to finish the game. Osborne won, 48-0. For the Huskies, a traditional eight-man power, it crystallized a future move to six-man.
“It really wasn’t fair, I didn’t think to anybody,” Northern Valley coach Marvin Gebhard said Friday afternoon. “That kind of cemented it for us, like we need to be doing this.”
Last year, Northern Valley joined the growing list of schools to play six-man football. This fall, 14 teams have an official varsity schedule, and Ransom-Western Plains is playing a partial schedule.
On Sept. 16, KSHSAA unanimously voted to make six-man an official KSHSAA sport starting in 2022. Twenty-four teams are required to become a KSHSAA sport.
“You have no other choice,” Cox said. “You have to fight. Thankfully, nobody else got hurt that game, but it’s sad seeing a team with only eight guys. At least they are hard-working guys, and they are guys that wanted to be there, but now that we have an actual team, it’s so much better.”
In 2014, Weskan, located a few miles from the Colorado line, faced low numbers. The Coyotes became the first Kansas team to play six-man since ‘03. In the next six years, six-man has primarily stayed in the northwest and southwest parts of Kansas. Burrton has been the furthest eastern school.
On Friday morning, KSHSAA officially named the schools that will switch to six-man, many from the eastern side: Altoona-Midway, Chase, Chetopa, Ingalls, Southern Coffey County, Centre, Peabody-Burns, Southern Cloud, Tescott, Waverly, Wetmore and Triplains-Brewster. As of Friday night, those squads were a combined 6-32 in eight-man football this fall.
This fall, Chase and Chetopa have already taken forfeits because of low numbers. Centre was not able to field an eight-man team and will play some six-man games. Peabody-Burns was exploring a six-man move this summer.
“As long as I get to play football, that’s fine,” Cox said. “I know originally KSHSAA didn’t really want too much to do with it. … It’s kind of nice to actually be noticed and realize that we are a sport.”
This summer, multiple coaches told CIK that six-man was on the cusp of reaching the 24 teams required. Two weeks ago, Western Plains athletic Dana Shay indicated “a lot of interest” in six-man growing again. Six-man coaches have often scheduled games at neutral site fields to have games.
“We all understand how hard it is to keep football in our communities and have a mutual respect for each other that is very unique,” Weskan coach Brett Clow told CIK this summer.
Per KSHSAA, 26 teams will play six-man in 2022-23. Those team’s enrollments for ninth, tenth and eleventh grade range from 19 to 55 students. Northern Valley is in the middle at 36.
The 6-Man Association has helped with game schedules and playoffs, including the Wild West Bowl championship held in Dodge City. Wild West Bowl champions have included Weskan, Moscow and Cheylin, which are the best football finishes in school history. Last fall, Cheylin won the Wild West Bowl, the first athletic title in any sport in program annals.
Ashland, currently No. 1 ranked in six-man, has big sophomore and freshman classes currently. Then, they will likely have just one to three football-playing boys in the three classes following.
KSHSAA sanctioning will assist scheduling, too. A full KSHSAA schedule is nine football games. Last year, Northern Valley played just seven, a trend for six-man teams. Six-man squads averaged 6.2 on-field games in 2020.
“It was great,” Gebhard said. “First off, we now get a full schedule, like before the 6-man association, we didn’t get that full schedule. So now, we get a full schedule. We get state KSHSAA championship, and we are fortunate enough too, we have got a good group right now that hopefully we can be in those games at the end.”
Plus, many of the top six-man schools, including Ashland, Cheylin, and Northern Valley heavily rely on sophomores and juniors. Northern Valley has 16 players out, with just three seniors, including running back Bailey Sides. Because of his brother’s wedding, he missed Friday’s 69-6 win against Rolla, a contest played at Grainfield, a neutral site. NV had big performances from backs Jeremiah Hansen, Gabriel Rudd, and Foster Brands.
Cox is the youngest of four boys. His dad, Brad, played and coached for NV. Gebhard and Brad Cox were longtime assistants for Chuck Fessenden, who coached the Huskies for 43 years. Gebhard took over as head coach in ‘19. In six-man, all players can get the ball.
“Originally, I was not excited,” Kai said. “I am like my dad. I like the old smashmouth football. He played for Chuck Fessenden, who loved to ground and pound. It was a little weird, because you switch to six guys, it’s a track meet almost. But once I got put into center, I realized this isn’t so bad.
“I mean, everyone is eligible for a pass, and that’s my favorite thing to do,” he added. “I love to catch. But it’s really fun, because everyone has opportunities to be the star. But everyone also has the opportunity to be the team player, so that’s what I love about it.”
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